Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius (Revisited)

robert_johnson2-1-290x300

(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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Murphy’s Law, Vol. One: A Primer

M LAW cover

In this collection of essays, reviews and ruminations, best-selling author Sean Murphy attempts to tackle the world in writing, one topic at a time. Selecting a sampling of his most popular pieces as well as some personal favorites, Murphy ranges from music to movies, literature to politics, sports to tributes for the departed. At his blog, Murphy’s Law, and as a columnist for PopMatters and contributing editor for The Weeklings, Murphy has combined enthusiasm and proficiency in the service of short and extended analyses. Throughout this compilation he shifts seamlessly between culture, the arts and an ongoing interrogation of American society.

Why is Robert Johnson the most influential American musician of the 20th Century? How—and why—did Dennis Miller go from being one of the better comedians in the world to a humorless hack? Why are even the most gifted novelists unable to write convincing sex scenes in their fiction? Was the first round of Hagler vs. Hearns in 1985 the most exciting three minutes in sporting history? Is it reasonable to suggest that Chinatown is the only perfect American film ever made? What does it mean to declare Stephen King the Paul Bunyan of letters? Is it possible we don’t adequately celebrate either Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby? Why should everyone consider cancelling their subscription to The Washington Post? Does nostalgia play a defensible, even necessary role in one’s art or life?

Equal parts reporter and raconteur, Murphy brings an informed acumen to essays mercifully free from academic jargon and pretension. His subjects cover so-called high and lowbrow and just about anything in between, and it’s obvious throughout that his only agenda is to celebrate, or castigate, or cross-examine his own impulses and predispositions. By turns studious, confrontational, hilarious and philosophical, Murphy’s Law, Vol. One will leave readers better informed, provoked and, hopefully, inspired to discover the work of some geniuses who’ve fallen outside the lower frequencies.

***AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND KINDLE FRIDAY, APRIL 29***

MORE INFO, AS ALWAYS, HERE!

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part One (Revisited)

robert_johnson2-1-290x300

NO SELF-RESPECTING writer should ever undertake the process of making a list lightly. As we all know, lists are ultimately trivial, subjective and practically a provocation inviting rebuttals, questions and caustic dismissal. They are, therefore, matters of life and death. Making this list made me (more) insane, so I know my mission is accomplished, in spirit if not actuality. Even picking the title caused consternation: some people will know and love all of these albums; all people will love and know some of them. The point, simply, is to celebrate fifty that I don’t think get enough love, and that I recommend without reservation. That said, this is not an exercise in obscurity: we already have hipsters happy to select the most abstruse or impossible-to-procure albums. In the cases where I allow for works I know a lot of people recognize, I’ve included them because in my experience, not nearly enough people seem to own them (spoiler alert: the top two selections are critically regarded masterpieces, but in my humble opinion they should be a great deal more beloved and recognized).

I enforced a few guidelines to make the project manageable: there is exactly one blues album, one classical, one “world music”, one country/bluegrass, one soundtrack and one jazz (but I broke that rule, inevitably): entire lists could—and should—be made of each genre, and I tried to limit the reggae, because an entire list is begging to be made at some point. There are more than a few albums on this list that I heard or read about and all music fanatics understand the karmic implications of turning friends and strangers on to albums that improve their lives. Getting off the familiar path always is always a word-of-mouth enterprise, so I thank everyone in advance for mentioning lesser known albums that warrant celebration in the comments section.

Let’s get it on.

50. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

Yes, everyone has heard of him. But have you heard this music? Do you own his collected works? They fit on one disc, so there’s no acceptable excuse not to.

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson? Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve. The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937. And as anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring.

In sum, if you consider yourself a fan of history, or culture, or America, or Art (etc.), you need this in your collection, and not as something to put on display, but something you will return to, often, to remember how deep, dark and mind-boggling humanity can be, at its best.

Robert J

49. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), is a chamber quartet by French composer Olivier Messiaen. This music was not merely inspired by the concentration camps, it was written, and then performed there. True story, and worth looking up. When considering the circumstances that accompanied its creation, the hyperbolic title not only seems appropriate but even inadequate. The music itself? Exactly what you might expect: stirring, solemn, celebratory. It is a living document of endurance and memory, and it is the soundtrack of a hope that can never be silenced.

messiaen

48. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. Plain and simple, Mingus Ah Um sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

mingus

47. Bela Fleck: Natural Bridge

It’s possible there is not a more maligned or misunderstood type of music than bluegrass. Banjo wizard Bela Fleck is probably the best-known practitioner of what is commonly referred to as “Newgrass” (progressive bluegrass). His credentials are unimpeachable, and his entire discography is consistently remarkable, but Natural Bridge stands out as a document that can entice a newbie and satisfy an aficionado. Pushing boundaries and styles, the results are buoyant and expressive, a tour de force of collective musicianship: every song is hummable and manages to sound familiar yet fresh on first listen. It’s difficult to imagine anyone with a remotely open mind being immune to the considerable charms on display, and it’s likely this could be a gateway to a love affair that never ends.

Bela F

46. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani

Although Mali legend Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, this posthumous release, his second collaboration with kora master Toumani Diabete, is an ideal summation of his work and perfect point of entry for newcomers. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

ali toumani

45. Mikey Dread: Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts (And then there is his fruitful, crucial association with The Clash: keyword Sandinista!).

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive, at times jovial and, when appropriate, somber. This is party music for the apocalypse.

mikey D

44. Elysian Fields: Bleed Your Cedar

This album should have made the beautiful Jennifer Charles a superstar. That it didn’t says more about our country, and its tastemakers, than it does about Elysian Fields. The songwriting and guitar playing of Oren Bloedow is effulgent throughout, and the album manages to be spooky and luminous at the same time. Centerpiece “Fountains on Fire” is sexy yet forbidding: Charles is a siren who will lull you to sleep and then steal your soul. Other tracks like “Jack In The Box” and “Anything You Like” have unmistakable noir elements while delivering the adrenaline. This is lounge music from hell, sung by an angel.

Elysian F

43. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno: No Pussyfooting

The origin of ambient? If not, definitely one of the early, and more enduring experiments that led to thousands of lifeless imitations. Considering the pedigrees of both men (long since anointed as legends) it’s almost impossible to imagine this not being brilliant, but recalling the relatively primitive conditions in which it was recorded, No Pussyfooting remains a revelation. Considering Fripp was in the midst of recording masterpieces with King Crimson’s most riotous ensemble and Eno was fresh out of Roxy Music, the subdued, glacial pull of this album is the type of anomaly we now know we could—and should—have expected from these two geniuses. In addition to being a remarkable recording in its own right, this can also be seen as a template for the types of sounds Eno and Fripp are still experimenting with, four decades later.

Fripp Eno

42. Wax Poetic: Nublu Sessions

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the last decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

nublu sessions

41. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic embrace of 2002?s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock permutations are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This is intelligent music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such creativity is conceived in the first place.

Cornershop

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part One

robert_johnson2-1

NO SELF-RESPECTING writer should ever undertake the process of making a list lightly. As we all know, lists are ultimately trivial, subjective and practically a provocation inviting rebuttals, questions and caustic dismissal. They are, therefore, matters of life and death. Making this list made me (more) insane, so I know my mission is accomplished, in spirit if not actuality. Even picking the title caused consternation: some people will know and love all of these albums; all people will love and know some of them. The point, simply, is to celebrate fifty that I don’t think get enough love, and that I recommend without reservation. That said, this is not an exercise in obscurity: we already have hipsters happy to select the most abstruse or impossible-to-procure albums. In the cases where I allow for works I know a lot of people recognize, I’ve included them because in my experience, not nearly enough people seem to own them (spoiler alert: the top two selections are critically regarded masterpieces, but in my humble opinion they should be a great deal more beloved and recognized).

I enforced a few guidelines to make the project manageable: there is exactly one blues album, one classical, one “world music”, one country/bluegrass, one soundtrack and one jazz (but I broke that rule, inevitably): entire lists could—and should—be made of each genre, and I tried to limit the reggae, because an entire list is begging to be made at some point. There are more than a few albums on this list that I heard or read about and all music fanatics understand the karmic implications of turning friends and strangers on to albums that improve their lives. Getting off the familiar path always is always a word-of-mouth enterprise, so I thank everyone in advance for mentioning lesser known albums that warrant celebration in the comments section.

Let’s get it on.

50. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

Yes, everyone has heard of him. But have you heard this music? Do you own his collected works? They fit on one disc, so there’s no acceptable excuse not to.

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson? Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve. The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937. And as anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring.

In sum, if you consider yourself a fan of history, or culture, or America, or Art (etc.), you need this in your collection, and not as something to put on display, but something you will return to, often, to remember how deep, dark and mind-boggling humanity can be, at its best.

Robert J

49. Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), is a chamber quartet by French composer Olivier Messiaen. This music was not merely inspired by the concentration camps, it was written, and then performed there. True story, and worth looking up. When considering the circumstances that accompanied its creation, the hyperbolic title not only seems appropriate but even inadequate. The music itself? Exactly what you might expect: stirring, solemn, celebratory. It is a living document of endurance and memory, and it is the soundtrack of a hope that can never be silenced.

messiaen

48. Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um

One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. Plain and simple, Mingus Ah Um sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter.  Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.

mingus

47. Bela Fleck: Natural Bridge

It’s possible there is not a more maligned or misunderstood type of music than bluegrass. Banjo wizard Bela Fleck is probably the best-known practitioner of what is commonly referred to as “Newgrass” (progressive bluegrass). His credentials are unimpeachable, and his entire discography is consistently remarkable, but Natural Bridge stands out as a document that can entice a newbie and satisfy an aficionado. Pushing boundaries and styles, the results are buoyant and expressive, a tour de force of collective musicianship: every song is hummable and manages to sound familiar yet fresh on first listen. It’s difficult to imagine anyone with a remotely open mind being immune to the considerable charms on display, and it’s likely this could be a gateway to a love affair that never ends.

Bela F

46. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani

Although Mali legend Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, this posthumous release, his second collaboration with kora master Toumani Diabete, is an ideal summation of his work and perfect point of entry for newcomers. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.

ali toumani

45. Mikey Dread: Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts (And then there is his fruitful, crucial association with The Clash: keyword Sandinista!).

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive, at times jovial and, when appropriate, somber. This is party music for the apocalypse.

mikey D

44. Elysian Fields: Bleed Your Cedar

This album should have made the beautiful Jennifer Charles a superstar. That it didn’t says more about our country, and its tastemakers, than it does about Elysian Fields. The songwriting and guitar playing of Oren Bloedow is effulgent throughout, and the album manages to be spooky and luminous at the same time. Centerpiece “Fountains on Fire” is sexy yet forbidding: Charles is a siren who will lull you to sleep and then steal your soul. Other tracks like “Jack In The Box” and “Anything You Like” have unmistakable noir elements while delivering the adrenaline. This is lounge music from hell, sung by an angel.

Elysian F

43. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno: No Pussyfooting

The origin of ambient? If not, definitely one of the early, and more enduring experiments that led to thousands of lifeless imitations. Considering the pedigrees of both men (long since anointed as legends) it’s almost impossible to imagine this not being brilliant, but recalling the relatively primitive conditions in which it was recorded, No Pussyfooting remains a revelation. Considering Fripp was in the midst of recording masterpieces with King Crimson’s most riotous ensemble and Eno was fresh out of Roxy Music, the subdued, glacial pull of this album is the type of anomaly we now know we could—and should—have expected from these two geniuses. In addition to being a remarkable recording in its own right, this can also be seen as a template for the types of sounds Eno and Fripp are still experimenting with, four decades later.

Fripp Eno

42. Wax Poetic: Nublu Sessions

Yes, this is the one that has Norah Jones on it. And I’m grateful for two reasons. First, even though Jones sings on only two tracks, they are both top-notch. Second, her involvement in this project clearly elevated its commercial appeal and helped more people stumble upon it. Nublu Sessions features a variety of guest vocalists, all to incredible effect. In addition to Jones, we get N’Dea Davenport, U-Roy and especially Marla Turner, whose vocals are some of the sexiest and most memorable of the last decade. Turner’s work on “Della” is an instant classic that invokes Motown filtered through a psychedelic jukebox: it is an ethereal Burt Bacharach song, equal parts Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes and Portishead. Nublu Sessions effortlessly meshes jazz, rock and pop, and is everything that great music is capable of being. Do yourself a favor and grab hold of this.

nublu sessions

41. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation

It seemed too good to be true that this band became one of the big stories in 1997 with their breakthrough When I Was Born For The 7th Time. In a way, it was. Whether because of pressure (self-imposed and critical) or lack of sufficient inspiration, it took them over five years to make their next album. With America’s typical attention span, that meant they were not only mostly forgotten, but effectively yesterday’s news. It’s a shame, then, that this atmosphere (partly of their own making) led to the apathetic embrace of 2002?s brilliant Handcream For A Generation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this album was (and continues to be) met with such indifference. Certainly, it doesn’t have the sure-fire hit single that “Brimful of Asha” was, but in many ways, the best songs on this album are better than the best songs on the one that preceded it.

In any event, it is one that remains ripe for reeavaluation, and the delights it contains are considerable. Put as simply as possible, anyone who dug When I Was Born For The 7th Time is strongly encouraged to snatch Handcream For A Generation. Cornershop’s inimitable Indian/British rock permutations are consistently clever, inventive and always, always cool as shit. This is one of the coolest albums of the new century and, in fact, it may be too cool for its own good. For skeptics or naysayers, how can you possibly go wrong with a record that has a song entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III”? This is intelligent music that makes you want to dance, laugh, and marvel at how such creativity is conceived in the first place.

Cornershop

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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Robert Johnson: A Celebration in Covers

As was mentioned in the piece revisited yesterday (see HERE), Robert Johnson’s body of work was small but unsurpassed in terms of import and influence.

Perhaps the best way –aside from listening to his complete works, which I suggest you do, after acquiring them here– to appreciate how vast and crucial his catalog was, and remains, is to see the variety of legends who have bowed at his altar.

Here is a small sampler of some personal favorites, some well-known, some quite obscure.

Let me know which one(s) you like best, especially if it’s not included below.

The Rolling Stones:

Led Zeppelin:

Cream:

Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green!):

Taj Mahal:

Cowboy Junkies:

SRV and friends:

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Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius (Revisited)

5/8/2011:

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius

 

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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Ten Ways of Looking at Four Decades

I.

Listen:

When some of your best friends are people who exist elsewhere—characters in books you’ve read, musicians you’ll never meet, people from the past who died decades (even centuries) before you were born, or people you knew intimately who are no longer around—it might be time to ask some complicated questions.

Who are you?

That is, or should be, the first question, as well as the last question, and it should be asked as often as possible along the way.

You see, all men are islands. After all, no one else is inside you when you’re born, no one is going with you when you die, and between those first and last breaths, the decisions, actions and accountability are your own. All, all yours.

So: you find friends, you seek solace in yourself, you learn to discern redemption through the aimless affairs that comprise the push and pull of everyone’s existence. You realize, in short, that you are going through it alone, so you should never go through it alone.

Thoreau was quite correct about quiet desperation and the long shadow it can cast over us all, but you don’t want to run off to your own unseen island. For one thing, there are no islands anymore, except the ones you pay admission to enter; plus, it’s already been done; and above all, when Thoreau got lonely or hungry he walked home and had his mother cook dinner for him, a fact he forgot to mention in his quite convincing case for individuality. Besides, everyone is already on his or her own island. You can’t run away, and the farther you run, the closer you get to yourself. And you’re all you’ve got.

If you are fortunate enough to figure this out early on, you find friends: the ones who exist in your everyday world, and the ones who have been there all along, the ones you can always turn to, wherever or whoever you happen to be.

 

II.

I have visions.

As far back as I can remember anything, I remember it being there—and I’m not just talking about run of the mill malarkey like guessing who was on the phone before I answered it, or what the next song on the radio would be before it was played (although these were both common recurrences throughout the mini-visions of my formative years)—I’ve been aware of things that most, if not all, other people I know have no access to: visions.

A vision:

I was certain that I had been destined to die on my eighteenth birthday.

I was not clear on how it was going to go down, but it was definitely to be marked by dramatic and tragic overtones—it would be, in short, supremely adolescent. Not slow death by disease, or some unfortunate ailment of the elderly, but more of a movie star blaze of glory, think James Dean or Jimi Hendrix. I could see them all: friends, family, choice classmates—the ones who gathered around my locker now gathered around my casket—sobbing, singing, eulogizing. I saw it. The vision intensified when I discovered that my eighteenth birthday happened to fall on Senior Prom. At first the made-for-TV melodrama was daunting, a tad over-the-top; but then the vision accrued acumen and I got a handle on the situation: what a brilliant way to go! Either I’ll have just experienced my first—and last—blissful sexual encounter (speaking of visions), or I’ll shuttle off into the post-pubescent afterworld pristine, an unsoiled altar boy.

I have visions. I do not claim that they are always accurate.

After prom (where I failed not only to die but to murder my virginity) I awoke the next morning, more than a little astonished to have survived. Having applied to the appropriate universities, I glided through the formality of standardized tests, still not unconvinced that I would be going anywhere. I exercised less caution than the average teenage idiot, reckoning that my visions obliged me to abet—or at least tempt—fate a little bit, just on principle. Alive on arrival, I found myself at college, where I subsequently saw some things that gave my visions a run for their money. I made it through matriculation and then, the unreal world awaited.

Still alive, I had little choice but to keep on living.

III.

Listen:

To win? To lose?

What for, if the world will forget us anyway?

I didn’t write that. A poet wrote that. I’m no poet. Poets are always looking for things, like heroes. Who wants to be a hero these days? Who can afford it? The world could be—and might very well already be—full of folks who will ring changes and do their part to shake up the constricting and crazed institutions that keep us chained, bound and complacent.  There are lots of these people, I’m sure: tons and tons of them.  But the thing is, most of us are too busy trying to live.  It’s enough to just survive without seeking to pursue such lofty, such poetic propositions.

This is the new poetry: the more things stay the same, the more they change. Here is our art: haikus of horror in the cities, sonnets of sin and corruption, limericks of deregulation, free verse free trade, rhymed lines of laissez-faire, and the emboldened ghost writer, Death, forever at work on our collective life stories.

These days we look for poetry in all the wrong places. Some of us even believe we are gazing more deeply into the murky waters of existence when all we are actually seeing is our own reflections.

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

What he said.

 

IV.

These dreams are trying to tell me something:

I find myself back in high school. Often. At night.

The bell rings, students scurry, locker combinations are unscrambled. Except mine.

What is my fucking locker combination?

All around me doors are opening and then slamming shut, my buddies all about business, pictures of pin-ups inside their lockers replaced by pictures of their kids, my homeroom buddy with the beer gut easily fitting his briefcase into the small space, and here I am, imploding in this typical teenage crisis, attempting to be cool while the anxiety escalates on the inside: high school redux.

I’m going to be late for class—again!

And then, this: Shit! This is the math class I haven’t been to in two months (who could blame me, what with a full time job during school hours—a fact conveniently ignored in the insanity of this ceaseless scenario), more than two months, an eternity in dream years, and I’m not even sure what room it’s in. So here I am, unable to open my locker, again, realizing I’m late for the class I have already failed.

These dreams are trying to tell me something, I know. I’m just not sure what it is.

V.

License registration, no I ain’t got none,
But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I done…

When you find yourself singing Bruce Springsteen lyrics in New Jersey to a state trooper in the hopes of avoiding a ticket, you might as well close your eyes, see what happens:
Maybe you could talk to the cop and explain that it was not disrespect for the rules of the road, but love of—and getting lost in—art that caused you to forget. To forget where you were and who you were, only to find yourself in the unfamiliar role of fugitive.
And maybe he would understand.
Maybe he would engage you in a discussion about music, and how it helps us, how it is always there, and occasionally compels us to do things we would not otherwise do.
And maybe, after everything was said and done, you would stop, and ask him if he was real, if this could ever actually happen.
And maybe he would wink familiarly, as if to say: This is America, ain’t it? Anything is possible.
And maybe you would believe him, even as you heard his footsteps fading away.
And by the time you opened your eyes, maybe you were still rolling down the road, the only reality being the speed and the sky, and the siren song of metal and machinery.

A vision:

Finally, his car needed fuel, he needed fuel; so he had no choice but to stop at the godforsaken rest area. Everyone, it seemed, had stopped at the same rest area: equal parts public toilet, food court and concessions stand. It was at once appalling and extraordinary; it was, in short, America.

Who were they, the people all around him? They were everyone: departing or arriving, leaving for vacation, returning to work, delighted, delirious, above all, anonymous. In New Jersey, or in any small town, or everywhere in America, there are people who find themselves lost; the people with nowhere left to go. A cliché? Sure. But clichés are made, not born. Reality, of course, is a cliché, and we have discovered that clichés—even as they are the enemy of art and authenticity—can be our friends. And so: going to church makes us sense spirituality, so we go; playing carols at Christmas facilitates a feeling of festivity, so we play; falling in love makes us feel loved, so we fall. We need all the help we can find, so we find friends and never look back.
He looked back; he looked around and in front of him, seeing the stereotypes: the ones in his mind that everything but experience had created. Or was the Cliché unfurling itself, the one that perpetuates from a particular place: experience, repetition, pattern, tradition? He saw them, he saw how he wanted to see them, he saw how they saw him, he saw how they saw him seeing them, and so on.
And who was he?
What was he all about? What had he done? Where had he been? Where was he going? Who did he think he was? Everyman? No man? Or worse: the type of person who actually asks questions like this.
Walking away, stomach full and mind clear, he saw her. He could not help noticing the forsaken sister walking in circles, seeking a corner of the room that wasn’t there. How old was she? Eighteen? Eighty? Somewhere right in between? Satisfied with a meek drink in the water fountain, she was the type of person who unthinkingly drank from public water fountains. Does anyone drink from public water fountains anymore? Do they still exist? Does anyone even notice them?
It was hard not to notice her, impossible not to notice that pain.
Pain: Dostoyevsky, disconcerted as he was with crime and punishment, saw all the suffering of the world in a prostitute’s eyes, and sobbed when he witnessed a peasant, hard-pressed with impotent anger, beating his horse to death. He opened his eyes and half expected to see this woman whipping herself while Nietzsche—knowing full well that God was dead— held his head and wept. Who was she, and what was she doing here?
A hooker, a homeless person? A mother, a case of mistaken identity? A human symbol of hope, or Hope herself—a deity deferred, paying the price for us all, all of us sinners and those sins we can scarcely describe.
She’s just like me, a voice inside attempted to say, a voice he very well may have listened to—a voice he had come dangerously close to growing into, under the shadow of the ivory tower—had he opted to make certain decisions along the way.
He walked over, ready to help: offer money, lend a hand, do whatever needed to be done, even and especially the things he had neither the ways nor means to make happen. He walked over and smiled, and she spoke, making him an offer he had no choice but to refuse.
It was enough to make one wonder if (and even wish that) the stories in the bible, and those fairy tales and myths men have made all have a foundation in fact. That the slow, ceaseless suffering some of us occasionally see is in accordance with a plan, a motion picture we have no part in producing. That it was not even personal, all this erstwhile, enigmatic madness, it was strictly business. It was enough to cause the hardest of humans to hope for a beneficent Big Guy (or Lady, but it is asking too much for God to have the decency to be a woman) upstairs, shuffling that proverbial deck. Or cutting and pasting the appropriate pieces of the puzzle, always keeping a wise eye on the endearing idiots underneath, and generally doing and saying the things that the creator of an entire universe says and does.
But how the hell are we supposed to have hope when Hope herself had been reduced to this, turning tricks at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike?

VI.

When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind,

Well, the blue light was my baby and the red light was my mind.

I didn’t say that.

A vision. Actually, a fantasy: Every so often I can’t help hoping that there will be a knock on my door and when I open it, who is there but my sexy soul mate, a beautiful woman who heard the blues music every time she walked by, and wondered if, according to her own fantasy, a sensitive, erudite dude had been right there all along, waiting for her, waiting for happily ever after. And after a while, she could no longer ignore the siren song escaping through the small space under the door and came knocking.

Of course, this illusion presupposes three things, in descending order of unlikelihood: one, that there are such things as soul mates; two, that my soul mate happens to live in my building; and three, that anyone actually listens to—much less enjoys—blues music.

All my love’s in vain.

What he said.

 

VII.

He waits.

He looks out the window and he waits.

He does not look at the magazine, the one on top of the others that littered the table, the one last picked up by the last person who had sat in this room.

He stands, not wanting to sit, not wanting to look down at the magazine. He looks down at the magazine, which stares up at him, defiant, disinterested, doing all that was asked of it. The magazine did not ask to be brought into this room, it did not ask to be read or ignored, to be picked up and put down, to be digested and then discarded.

He stands, knowing that if he thinks about the magazine he wishes he were not looking at, the magazine he will not read, he will not think of the things he does not want to think about.

He does not walk into the corridor to look into the room that the woman is not in.

He waits.

He understands—anyone who has been where he is understands—that you must prepare yourself to wait a long time. So you prepare, and you wait. And then, it is even longer than that, longer than you remember. Much longer. He remembers: standing, then sitting in this room, almost the exact same spot, twice already (third time is the charm, he does not say) and still cannot help being surprised at how long he has had to wait.

He waits.

No one talks to him (they know who he is and why he is here), and no one knows the story he could tell (it is the same story everyone who has stood where he is standing would tell).

He stands silently, shifting and sorting his awareness that eventually they will bring her to the room. When they bring her to the room he will see her. He will see her seeing him, then see her seeing him see her. And then she will ask him and he will have to tell her. He will try not to tell her and she will look at him and remind him that he has to tell her.

He waits.

He wishes that they would hurry up (hurry up and get it over with, he does not say) and then he hopes that they will never come so he can stand, peacefully paralyzed in this forever moment.

Eventually, he looks at the table, and the magazine that waits for him to pick it up. He does not pick it up.

He sits down and does not think about the nothingness that surrounds him, the nothingness around him and the gnawing nothingness inside him. He does not notice the plants or the paintings or the cheerfully colored curtain that does not cover the light outside. He does not allow himself to contemplate the sterile silence screaming all around him, the vacant spaces, and the odd energies of dying life. Most of all, he does not think about it: how impossibly clean people in impossibly white clothes speaking impossible to understand languages using impossibly powerful tools and technology anesthetize everything but still cannot keep it out. They are only human and they cannot disguise it, it happens no matter what they do to prevent it or ignore it.

He finds himself staring, again, at the magazine, the magazine that he had picked up without realizing it. He does not open the magazine he under no normal circumstances would have even the slightest inclination to read. He does not open it and therefore does not, among other things, learn about which foods would improve his sex drive and help him sleep more soundly, he does not find out ways to make his partner reach new levels of ecstasy every time, he does not peruse his horoscope to see what the future has in store for him, he does not discover the secret to losing ten pounds in only three days, and he does not skim the interview that explains how the fragile millionaire singer lost the chance of making millions more dollars after having a nervous breakdown while filming a commercial for a soft drink she would not otherwise endorse.

He waits.

He does not pass the time planning opportunities that could create happiness. He does not deceive himself (this time) about the possibility of forgetting the present by focusing on the past. He does not dwell on the types of things they would enjoy doing again, the things they enjoyed, once, which they never found the time or forgot to do. Again. He does not think about the ways in which you discover that the things you loved, then, become the things that bring about inexplicable sorrow: the movies, the music, the meals, the books, the board games, the photo albums, the family.

And so: he does not allow himself to think about her as she is now or how she was then. Or how he is now or how he was then. How he will be.

He looks down at the magazine, again, and picks it up, again.

He understands that the second he opens the magazine they will arrive, wheeling her down the hall like the enigmatic magicians they were trained to be. If he opens the magazine, the magic act, performed (again) before an awkward audience, will begin. So he waits.

He stands up and looks out the window, at the horizon, beginning to disappear in heavy air beneath the tops of the trees. He looks down, far below, where miniature people inside miniature cars sit in miniature rows, stoically and slowly moving forward in the directions of their miniature houses and the miniature respites that may or may not await them. The sky continues to sag, ensnaring the world in its silent sentinel. The people, and then the cars, and then the earth all slip away, leaving only lights that sigh in their electrical language. He looks down at the waning waves of lights, and these lights do not look like a thousand sets of eyes, they do not make the darkness more discernible, they do not appear as poetry. They are exactly what they are: they are progress, they are pain, they are power. They are the cold crucible of machines that control the lives of the men who made them.

He does not let himself think about these things. He has too many other things not to think about.

He does not turn around.

He will hear them, eventually, when they come.

Eventually they will come, and he will hear them, and then he will turn around.

Then, he would…

He looks down; again, at the magazine he will not read. He knows, again, that if he picks up the magazine they will come.

He sits silently and stares at the magazine. He stands and looks out the window. He does not turn around.

He waits.

VIII.

I still have hangovers, thank God.

Everyone who has known an alcoholic knows that as soon as you stop feeling the pain, it’s because you are no longer feeling the pain; you are no longer feeling much of anything.

So, I welcome the horrors of the digital cock crowing in my ear at an uncalled for hour, am grateful for the flaming phlegm in my throat, the snakes chasing their tails through my sinuses, the smoke stuck behind my eyelids, the shards of glass in my gut, and the special ring of hell circling my head. Because if it weren’t for those handful of my least favorite things, I’d know I had some serious problems.

All of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his balls, then up and out the door before sunrise—like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge of. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50’s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become. Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out. This was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives.

It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

IX.

(And so, (you think), a life is not unlike a novel: too often they are eager to please, predictable, safe. You think: And so, you should feel obliged to occasionally ask yourself complicated questions. Such as: What are you doing to keep things interesting? What can you do to generate momentum, keep the narrative flowing?

Memories refract reality, where we see what we’ve done, or what we wished we’d done, or what we might have done, what we should not have done, what someone else may or may not have done, and what we may or may not have done if we were someone else. Kind of like a movie, a work in progress, a motion picture in your mind.)

Fade in:

Eventually, the patio is filled with people. Not customers, necessarily, but the cast of characters who congregated at this sad café, all the people who had put in time making the place everything it was. One by one, they stroll in and sit down.

The ceaseless discussion of suffering continued in the other corner, where Nietzsche attempted to speak calmly to the ever-irascible Dostoyevsky. You’d very much like to join them, but you have work to do.

After a while, you finally approach the one table you did not know, the two people who had been waiting patiently all along.

It was a mother and her son, and it was difficult to determine if he was a young boy, or an older boy trapped in a child’s body. He could have been eight, or eighteen, maybe older, probably younger—it was impossible to tell. He smiles, not needing to say a thing as the setting sun shines off the silver spokes of his wheelchair. He sits still, body inert but head moving: he looks up, down, sideways—everywhere; it seems, but straight ahead. His head was the stimulus and response, a crucible of his contained, constricted energies.

You think about his life.

Time: the time required to do everything, any one thing, every act obliging some manner of assistance. Time: double, triple, quintuple the time. It defied comprehension when considered on simple terms.

You think about your life.

And you know what you are supposed to do, so you think good thoughts, purposefully positive thoughts. You understand yourself well enough to perceive that you should intentionally avoid the possibility, the probability of letting your thoughts go where they likely wanted to go. Where they would go, if you let them. You know if you continue to watch the little boy, you are going to contemplate all the injustice and suffering his condition entailed. Nevermind the fact that the boy appeared content, possibly even happy, and very likely unaware that he was disabled, or in any way different from all the other people in the world.

You look at the mother and think about her life. You understand, as you watch her place the straw from her son’s drink into his mouth, that it was she who bore the burden. The burden of responsibility, of memory, the affliction of knowledge. You can only imagine her anger, the fear and frustration she felt.

And yet. You are unable to detect any evidence of those feelings on her face, and nowhere in her actions, which were an instruction of patience and grace. Mostly, it was her smile. A constant, unquestionable smile; the type of smile that is perfected through practice. The sort of practice that is neither forced nor fake: it was the smile of perseverance and peace—hers was the face of faith. And you have seen this face before. You recognize it: you had seen it at a sordid rest-stop on the outskirts of the Jersey Turnpike, you had seen it lying in a hospital bed, dying as a new decade began, you saw it every day in your dreams, you see it right now, smiling defiantly in spite of everything it had seen.

You see the smile and wipe tears from your own eyes, because you understand—you finally grasp—that it was love, and it was miraculous. It was love, real human love. The type of love that involves effort and embraces life, real life: ugly, inequitable, often unaccountable. The type of love that redeems instead of retreating, the kind of love that is faith, portrayed in a mother’s face.

It was a smile. A smile. No one could afford to smile anymore. And yet, somewhere, some people still smile. Love and soul, of course. That’s all it ever takes. A smile capable of restoring your faith.

Fade out…

 

X.

A vision:

Later, he stood alone by the lake, thinking about all he had seen, about what had happened, and what was going to happen.

He thought about his life.

Silently he stood, the same child who had stepped in the shadows of the once towering buildings—before the city’s haze obscured the sky—and looked up at the stars, scattered like bread crumbs in the dark air, wondering if they really led to a kingdom beyond the clouds.

As always, he thought about his family, his friends, the heroes who had created the art that made life more worth living, the places and feelings that comprised all the pain and profundity of existence, all the questions that belonged without answers: all of this was inside him. So as long as he lived, and made himself remember, they never ceased to be.

I Talk With The Spirits.

He heard voices (Spirits? His mother? Himself?), once again reminding him that too much unpaid labor helped bring him to where he was—the sweat of history and the backs strong enough to endure pains he could not comprehend—and that all he was able to achieve helped make amends for the names and faces he never saw. It is their voices—each immigrant who helped build this country with their bare hands, who erected buildings they never set foot in, all the dispossessed souls that worked and died and never learned to write—it was those voices that clamored for utterance, waking him in the middle of the night; it was their cries that fueled his disdain; their screams that insisted on his solidarity, providing purpose to his restless, otherwise aimless indignation. These were the voices he had always heard, the voices he had been afraid to fully understand. Now, he knew he should be afraid if he didn’t hear them. He had looked for peace but was beginning to understand—and appreciate—that his peace was having a purpose, because there was too much work to be accomplished. There could be no silence, never in this lifetime. Silence is death, and defeat. Those voices spoke to him, and through him, and told him he was not alone. He would never be alone.

He looked out on the water, at his face, which reflected up amongst the buildings and air, looking down and seeing the world in itself. Then the mirror imploded as he walked forward, leaving his shirt and shoes on shore. He strode into the dark, warm water, making his way toward the middle of the lake and diving deep, not stopping until his hands touched the bottom, gripping the cold marrow of murky mud.

Moments later he emerged, sucking in the air as though he had never tasted life before, as though he was breathing for the first time.

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My Mix Tape Confession

God I miss mixed tapes.

(Which begs the question: Is it mixed tape, mix tape or mixtape? I say all of the above, and shall use them interchangeably.)

I know this is an old school skill that everyone boasts about; people have even written books about it: some of the stories are successful, some are very good novels that were inevitably made into very mediocre movies.

You can, of course, approximate the experience via iPod and playlists. Anyone can do that. And that’s the problem: anyone can do it. It’s too easy. It might even be easier to create superior product, because when the entire world is your library (also called iTunes), there are no limitations a quick download can’t conquer. But a mixed tape, aside from being an art unto itself (which songs would, assembled in the appropriate order, come as close as humanly possible to 45 minutes per side, often requiring a calculator and album credits to ensure individual song lengths), demanded effort and considerable deliberation, all based on songs already available to the mix-maker. Thus, it was truly a reflection of one’s personality; these were songs the individual had cared about enough to own the album (or, ahem, the CD) in the first place.

For a mix of one specific band, it was a wonderfully excruciating exercise in mixology; the methodology was distinctly Darwinian: only the strongest would survive. Therefore, if you were making a 90-minute mix for, say, Led Zeppelin or The Doors, you had to necessarily eschew some of the longer (and better) tracks to ensure maximum bang for the proverbial buck. Not much point in taking up half of one precious side to ensure that “When The Music’s Over” and “The End” made the cut; or, while it’s hard to argue that “In My Time of Dying” and “Tea For One” don’t belong on any Zep mix, you could fit in “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “That’s The Way”, “Down By The Seaside” and “For Your Life” in the same space. Of course, mixes for the ’70s prog supergroups were difficult, (think Genesis or King Crimson), to impossible, (think Yes or Pink Floyd.) Sometimes, you simply had to get creative: for a semi-encompassing summation of Rush’s oeuvre (understanding that at minimum two tapes were necessary: one for their first decade and one for their second), you had to cut and paste the old fashioned way. Can’t fit 2112 on, but it has to be included, so perhaps you just put in “Discovery” or “Oracle: The Dream”, or (like I did) just do a several minute pastiche of all the guitar solos from the entire opus. With Pink Floyd, you had to have the epic side-long suites represented in some fashion, so you just took the magisterial opening section from “Atom Heart Mother” or perhaps Part One of “Dogs” (or perhaps Part Two) and, obviously, you had to use your best judgment regarding “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. It goes without saying that the type of band mix differed depending on the target audience: if it was for personal use, anything was allowed. For friends, particularly ones uninitiated with the artist in question, it was incumbent upon the mix-maker to ensure all the essential tracks (i.e., the ones that did or would show up on a greatest hits album) were chosen (whereas those invariably didn’t make it onto the personal mixes, for a variety of functional and aesthetic reasons). Mix, play repeat: Practice made perfect.

The primary M.O. for mix tapes, of course, was for the intrigue they added to relationships. A mixed tape was de rigueur for establishing, assessing and understanding the various levels of any serious romance. The first mix was as important, in its way, as the first kiss: too early and you could blow it; too late and you may have missed an opportunity to send the right signal at the right time. This ground has been covered ad nauseam and everyone who ever gave or received a mixed tape will recall the rules of engagement. If you remember mixed tapes you received without the slightest pang of remorse, enthrallment or unforced sentimentality, either the relationship or the tape sucked. Probably both. (My condolences.) I know I ended up missing some of the mix tape miracles I gave away more than I missed the women I made them for (which is not necessarily a commentary on the enthralling women who tolerated me for any amount of time so much as an unapologetic appraisal of the one thing I always got right).

Intermission: If this guy wasn’t on one of your mix-tapes, your problems exceeded simple musical myopia:

It occurs to me that I’m probably the only person who believes some of his finer mixes should be enshrined in The Smithsonian.

If obliged to select a few for canonization, among the first inductees for my mix tape Hall of Fame ballot would be Say It Once Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud Vol. 2 (Volume One covered off some of the more readily accessible (i.e., car-friendly) material from mix tape MVP James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, et cetera, while subsequent volumes covered the bases and the outfield with everyone from Otis Redding and Louis Jordan to Johnny Ace and Sly Stone). Vol. 2 was the sum of its parts, which means it was an embarrassment of riches. It started with Marley’s “Natural Mystic” and ended with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You.” Songs with words were not always necessary; for instance, Herbie Hancock’s “Speak Like A Child” melted into Shuggie Otis’s “Rainy Day” and then Young Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut” to round out side A. Flip that sucker over and business gets taken care of courtesy of Aaron Neville, Jerry Butler, The Shirelles, Isaac Hayes, Etta James, Elmore James, The KINGS (B.B. and Albert), Lightnin’ Hopkins and Vernon Reid’s Lightnin’, Dennis Brown and Black Uhuru, The Gladiators and The Chantelles, Bessie Smith, Abbey Lincoln and Fela Motherfuckin’ Kuti. I could say more, but I’ve told you too much already.

Another epic mix that is at once too arduous and too awkward (for the author) to detail is the self-explanatory “Some of the Future Mrs. Murphys” series. This title referred to some (but not all, hence the “some”) of the female artists I would eagerly marry, purely on the basis of what their music did to me. More about them another time, maybe. For now, a handful of sirens who enjoy Emeritus status are lovingly represented, below.

       

Forward progress, particularly in technological terms, is seldom an unfortunate scenario. Letters are almost instinct now that we have e-mail, canned vegetables have mercifully been supplanted by aisles of organic goodness, clunky video cassettes have been replaced by online pirating, I mean DVDs. Even big, energy inefficient monstrosities (cars, as well as TVs) that once signalled American predominance are quickly becoming cuckoos of the 21st Century. These are all welcome and overdue advancements.

And yet…

Not to get all Ray Davies or anything, but the old ways ain’t ever coming back. So it’s seems respectful and perhaps more than a little necessary to let out a little howl for the way we used to roll. What we’re left with now when it comes to mixmanship is, by default, an exercise in onanism: we make playlists for ourselves. The sound quality and song selection are unquestionably superior, but the impetus for creativity and the urgency of the interaction is lacking. A playlist listened to with headphones on the morning commute can never compare with the indelible memories an effective mixed tape could inspire. It was always a fundamentally human exchange: it was an unspoken act of love. Giving was often as good as receiving. There was a specific message that only a mixed tape was capable of conveying, and once we lost that, we all lost a small but irretrievable portion of our souls.

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